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THE COAST IN
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WE SLEEP OUT ON
TIME: Mid-20th Century
“It looks almost
like an ocean out there!” I shouted to Rudi as we sped
along the southern coastline of France.
I looked, and for a moment thought I saw Africa on the other side. “And
one day, we will get to Africa and look back across the Mediterranean
and see Europe,” I thought, “Where I am right now.”
If we can get to Africa, I will look back to this side, remembering all
our good times in France: Toby, the crazy pot party, Lily, the songfest
under the bridge, the Paris caves, Mr. Blanchard’s wine, Mr. Rouge’s
farm, and others I haven’t mentioned like little Edith. On her parent’s
farm as Rudi and I talked with her parents after supper, little 5-year-
old, Edith, who fell asleep trying to keep awake past her bedtime to listen
to her American and German visitors.
Traveling along the Mediterranean
reminded me of Ocean City, Maryland, my home town, where a walk on the
beach meant a broad expanse of fine white sand. We found a stretch of
it our first night out camping. But another night it was a pebbly beach
where I snapped a picture of a lone woman scavenging for whatever the
Mediterranean waves would offer her.
Beachcombing is an
art, I suppose, all over the world. Whenever a nor’easter
with a 40-mile an hour wind passed through our town, those of us kids
who were beachcombers would be out on the surfside the next day looking
for stuff. One kid had a coin finder, I usually brought along a magnifying
glass. We searched the water’s edge for interesting objects that
the ocean would give up after a big storm.
During the war some days it was a tacky job because whenever
a German U-boat sank an American tanker offshore, oil from the sunken
tanker would wash ashore and for about a week the beach would be left
with a black coat of seaweed covered with what we called sticky “Tar”.
My mother would make us wash our feet with kerosene before we were allowed
back in the house. By the way, she was a volunteer during the war for
the WCCGAAP, I think they called it, the Women’s Civilian Coast
Guard Auxiliary Air Patrol. Her job was to sit high up in the pillbox
in the sand dunes up the beach north of town from 3pm to 5pm and watch
for suspicious activity out on the ocean. There were only 950 people living
in Ocean City during the winter time back then, so the U.S. Air Force
was grateful for people like Muzzie, that’s what we called her,
to go up there and volunteer.
People are still finding stuff
along the beach. One time even a body washed up and a coin from a Spanish
galleon. There has been debris that washed ashore from sunken German U-boats,
crashed airplanes, and exotic seashells from the ocean bottom. One time,
and this was when I was younger, I was walking the shore with my mother,
I guess I was 9-10 yrs old, I picked something up and Muzzie suddenly
screamed right there in public with sunbathers all around and said “Put
that down! Drop I! Don’t touch it!” I had thought it was some
kind of jellyfish. It looked like a colorless balloon. I wanted to blow
it up. It was a condom.
The U.S. Coast Guard concrete
pillbox on the sand dunes north of town stayed up there all alone long
after the war until land developers realized the real estate potential
of the ocean front and Ocean City became a vacation spot for people from
Baltimore and Washington. The wheeler-dealers took over and that’s
when the town lost it.
Back to France. Rudi and I camped out along the beach
that night, and in the morning, headed toward the looming foothills of
the Pyrenees off in the distance. Perpignan was a friendly
town with the influence of Spain and Arabic-looking people. We probably
were following the trail of the Romans to Spain, and the back and forth
movement over the centuries of Arabs, Jews, and French who were either
making an exodus, conquering something, getting kicked out or just trying
to find a place to settled down, and all squeezed between the great mountains
on the north and the sea on the south. It left a feisty mix of people
and we were feeling it.
We visited the local newspaper office in Perpignan and one of the reporters
gave us his advice about going to Spain.
Don’t. “There’s another Hitler over there,” He
Well, there was no way we were going to get to Morocco if we didn’t
go through Spain. His advice didn’t dissuade us.
On the road again the
next day. We entered Spain by La Junquera. At the border, the
Spanish customs officers were all dressed in fancy government uniforms,
like they were on a movie set. If we both hadn’t been carrying guitars
on our motor scooter, I bet they would have dickered with us for a couple
hours, what with us looking like a couple of drifters.
Although the landscape of southern
France was a gradual change, I felt an almost sudden change in the people.
I was expecting strikingly beautiful girls, guitars, castanets and stomping
heels, and hopefully not the kind of boot clicking from storm troopers.
Maybe the newspaper reporter
back in Perpignan was right.
We drove toward Barcelona, the Spanish port with a history of Roman roads
and Gothic architecture. As we sped along the rolling hills lined with
stubby cork trees, and olive groves we shouted out our first impressions
to each other in the onrushing wind.
“Where’s all the traffic?” Rudi shouted. “This
road has no cars on it, no traffic, it’s like an airplane runway!
“Yeah. I’ve only seen a couple military trucks and a tourist!”
Civilization ended at the border. I shouted back to him above the wind.
It was weird, it was like the towns and the countryside, someone had sounded
an air raid alarm and everyone was in the shelters.
Later we learned there are no air raid shelters, it’s just that
it was siesta time in Spain, and from around noon to 2 or 3 o’clock
you just don’t try or do anything outside, it’s too hot.
Each little village we passed through had a village square and a traffic
policeman stationed there. Why, I don’t know because there was no
traffic. The policeman would stand in all that heat in his round traffic
podium and waved when we drove by. Then probably returned to sleep under
his large canvas shade umbrella.
Later in the afternoon, along the roadsides and in the
little towns, the people waved and shouted with the frenzy of a political
rally when they would spot the guitar strapped to the front of our scooter.
“They’re really friendly people!” Rudi shouted up to
I shouted back, “Yeah! Look at them wave!” and we both waved
back to a group of shouting men who were sitting on a roadside embankment.
It was now the middle of June, and the countryside was getting bleached
by the sizzling Spanish sun. Everything seemed defined in tones of black
As we drove by a small water well in one of the small villages, a group
of men yelled to us. “Guitar! Guitar!” We interpreted this
as a sign of warm-blooded Latin friendliness and pulled the scooter around
the village square to have a drink of water.
“Buenos Dias!” we greeted them. “Do you have a drink
of water for us?” Rudi greeted the small group of local peasants.
They just stared as though
we hadn’t said a thing. We didn’t know what to say. “Agua,
Agua!” Rudi made a sign of drinking a glass of water and pointed
to the well in case they hadn’t understood his Spanish. They just
kept staring at us. I looked around to see if we had pulled up to the
same men that had been shouting to us. Sure, enough they were, but they
didn’t seem so hospitable anymore. What happened? They started retreating
behind each other like a slow motion game of musical chairs until only
the curious infants remained to answer us.
“What da hell was that?” I looked at Rudi.
“Maybe the water’s bad, and they’re ashamed to give
“Or maybe they’re not allowed to use the wells this time of
It was like when we were kids when you’re watching a Saturday afternoon
movie at the matinee and you shout along with everybody else at the bad
guy when he guns down the hero. You never expect him to come out of the
screen, jump down off the stage and point his gun at you.
We represented the movie flick and they never expected we would stop and
talk with them. They didn’t know how to react.
Whatever it was, we
didn’t get any water at that well, and we took off, looking for
another one. “Guitar! Guitar! I heard a man shouting from a horse
cart as we passed him, and I wondered just what he meant by that!
We pulled up to a well in the next village where some old women were filling
jugs from the village well water.
“O.K. to take some water?” I motioned, hoping they would understand
what I meant. She quietly handed me a small jug, and Rudi and I filled
our canteen and ourselves and then handed it back to her. “Thank
She said suspiciously, “De nada.”
“It’s probably only in this area they’re like this,”
Rudi reckoned as we got back on the scooter and headed for Barcelona.
We arrived in Barcelona in late afternoon, and had a meal of fish rouget
and garlic in a small harbor café. As we were finishing our meal,
and elderly man in a black European suit greeted us from the other end
of the café.
“That your scooter out there?” he spoke to
us in German.
“Hello!” We said as he came over to talk with us at our table.
“Yes, it’s our scooter. We’re on a world tour.”
“Well I’m on a tour, too! Oh, by the way, my name’s
Hans Von Musser.” He wore a German sea cap, and looked like captain
Ahab himself all dressed up. We introduced ourselves, and then he went
on to tell us he was touring the ports of Europe in a one-mastered ketch
he had built. “Yes, built that thing all by ourselves, me and my
friend. Took us two years in Hamburg to do it, too.”
“Is your friend with you on the tour, too?” I asked.
“No, he couldn’t make it, left me to make the trip all by
myself -it’s a pity, too; I have an unused room on the boat.”
“Are you married?” Rudi asked rather indiscriminately.
“That’s being mighty inquisitive, son!” He snapped,
turning to Rudi.
“Can you handle that boat all by yourself?” I asked.
“Almost a year now. I hit ‘em all on the way down, Rotterdam,
Le Havre, Brest, Bordeaux, Biarritz, Santander, Lisbon, Gibraltar, and
now Barcelona. I’ve been selling articles about my trip to newspapers
in all the cities I visit, but the cheap bastards here in Barcelona won’t
give me a cent, so I won’t give them a thing, either!”
“They pay for the stories?” I asked. I had
sent my newspaper articles to the Baltimore SUN and hoped to hear a “Yes”
from the captain. It would give me encouragement until we reached Madrid
where we would learn an answer by return mail.
“Sure, most of them give you enough money that’ll cover the
cost of gasoline until the next port.”
“But why don’t you just give the editor in Barcelona the article,
even though they won’t buy it?” I suggested to him.
“Why in the hell would I want to do that?... Are you crazy?”
“Well, I’d think the more articles you come in with to a newspaper
editor; the more important you would look to them. When you got to the
next city, you wouldn’t have to mention some of the previous city
newspapers didn’t pay you.”
I pointed to my trip book to show him how Rudi and I had stopped in local
newspapers all through Europe, telling them about our trip. They usually
wrote a story and took a picture of us. Local people would see the article
and strike up a conversation and often we would be invited into a home
for a meal or lodging. And also how I would paste in there other photographs
and autographs of people we had met. I thought the captain would be interested
in the idea.
“Not me, sonny!” he said, laying my book down without even
opening it. “They’re not gonna get a word outta me unless
they pay for it!” He was perturbed that I suggest he give his writings
away for nothing.
I tried to direct the conversation to a less controversial subject, like
talking about how he made the usual repairs and upkeep for his boat, but
he was an irritable man. The status quo was lost. I thought of those nice
warm cots in his extra room on the ketch when he finally stood up, gave
us each a silent salute, and walked out of the café.
“There goes our invitation for the night,” I looked over at
“He probably wasn’t even a sea captain. He probably didn’t
even have a boat,” Rudi mumbled.
I looked out the door of the café. It had become dark. “Well,
it looks like we’re gonna stay in the city tonight,” I said,
wondering what kind of accommodation we’d finally end up with that
“Let’s go down to the harbor, maybe we’ll find another
German ship!” Rudi said.
We rode through the dim lights and fog of the Barcelona harbor. We didn’t
find a German ship, but did come up on a high stack of hundreds of empty
wooden fish crates, where we found an empty space to lay out our sleeping
bags atop a few burlap bags. The sound of sea gulls and foghorns lulled
us to sleep.
In the middle of the night Rudi shook me and hollered,
“It’s starting to rain!” He got up and unpacked the
tent from the scooter. He spread it over top of our sleeping bags and
we crawled under the tent canvas and covered ourselves from the rain.
We went to sleep dry and soundly until six o’clock the next morning
when the noise of women’s voices woke us up.
Rudi was the first to say anything. “We got some visitors?”
It was dark underneath the tent canvas, and we had no idea what time it
was. There was still a slight drizzle from the rain, and it puzzled us
why we would hear women’s voices out in the middle of all those
fish crates. And especially since we didn’t yet realize it was early
in the morning.
“I’ll take a peek,” I said answered cautiously.
I slowly lifted an edge of the canvas tent cover. The contrasting early
morning light burst into my eyes, and with the complication of the rain,
I thought I still might be dreaming. I blinked several times until my
eyes grew accustomed to the light. There I saw scurrying around our little
camping site, scores of women in shawls and long black aprons. Like longshoremen
they were lugging big crates filled with fresh fish to the wooden tables
that they had set up in the area. They didn’t seem to have noticed
us. Maybe they thought there was some fishing netting or something that
belong to a fisherman under our canvas tarp.
The mountain of crates had disappeared; we had set up our camping site
in the center of the Barcelona fish market!
“We gotta get outta here!” I whispered
“What happened? What’s out there?”
“A fish market!”
“What?” And he whipped the tent back to see for himself.
Some of the women saw us trying to put our clothes on underneath the tent
canvas and their giggles attracted half of the fishmongers, traders, brokers
and customers in the market to watch us. With the rainfall and how we
were feeling, it took us only a short while to pack everything and leave.
I looked back to see some of them waving handkerchiefs, and others quickly
filling up our campsite with tables.
We headed down the harbor street to a distance we felt the news of our
fish market escapade wouldn’t reach and pulled up to a corner lunch
“How about some breakfast?”
“I’m starved!” Rudi answered as we entered and sat in
a corner of the two-tabled restaurant.
On to Madrid